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  • Sarah Naidjate from ELEVEN

Beauty of Tawhid: The Significance of Mosaics in Islamic Art and Architecture

January 6, 2024: As I listened to my tour guide discuss the history of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, I could not help but be captivated by the architecture around me. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling by sleek mosaic tiles, adorned with intricate geometric and Arabesque patterns. Interwoven across the mosaics were phrases of praises for the lord of all worlds, Allah (SWT) and our beloved prophet Muhammad (SAW), written in Arabic calligraphy. The mosaics at Topkapi reminded me of the architectural elements in Cordoba that remained from the early Islamic conquest of Andalucia in Spain.

Beautiful mosaic incorporated in various architecture in Turkey

In the wake of my return from Turkey, I began to reflect upon the consistent prevalence of mosaic tiles and calligraphy in Islamic art. Despite the diversity of our ummah, the two motifs appear within the Arab and non-Arab world. When examined through the lens of tawhid - the belief in the oneness of Allah - the pieces begin to shape the greater mosaic of our faith.

As anyone who walks into a masjid can immediately tell, the absence of religious imagery instantly sets Islamic architecture apart from other places of worship. In both polytheistic and other monotheistic religions, the depiction of God, prophets, and other figures is integral to the architecture of their sites of worship. When one enters a Buddhist or Hindu temple, they are greeted by ornate statues and sculptures of deities like Buddha and Vishnu, while the high ceilings and walls of Catholic churches are decorated with mosaic scenes of Prophet Jesus (AS) and his mother Mary (RA). If this is common practice in most other faiths, why is Islam so different?

Examples of religious symbols decorating the walls of Turkey

The stories of both Prophet Ibrahim (AS) and Prophet Muhammad (SAW) destroying idols and physical religious symbols are well known to Muslims. The lesse- known fact is why the depiction of living beings and figurative images is strictly forbidden in our religion. The answer lies in lessons derived from pre-Islamic Arabia.

Before the revelation, nearly all Arabs in Mecca were pagan - they belonged to a faith that worshiped many Gods. Although there were remnants of Prophet Ibrahim’s monotheism within Arab society, over time, the Arabs began to ascribe the might of Allah (SWT) with other powers as a result of physical symbolism. One of the primary pagan deities, Al-Lat mentioned in verse 19 of Surah Al-Najm, was a man who used to feed the pilgrims (Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 4859). After his death, the Arabs constructed and decorated a home with images upon his grave. Over time, Al-Lat was taken as a divine power and his grave became a site of worship, hence the origins of idolatry in Arabia. By the time Mecca was conquered by Prophet Muhammad (SAW), there were more than 360 idols around the Kaaba (Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 2478). The presence of physical objects and imagery enabled the practice of shirk - the association of a partner with Allah (SWT).

Evidently, important lessons can be derived from the Jahili Arabs - the Arabs during the days of ignorance who believed in Allah (SWT), but ultimately committed shirk and abandoned the belief in the oneness of Allah (SWT) through their usage of idols as “intercessors”.

Therefore, the origin of mosaics and calligraphy in Islamic art is a testament to the centrality of tawhid. Figureless artwork like mosaics not only serve as a medium to beautify homes and places of worship, but more importantly, they remind us that the oneness and might of Allah (SWT) is so unparalleled that a human being never should, nor could, depict the beauty of His creation.

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